Like taking a barefoot summertime stroll through the dunes near Lake Michigan, the hot political sands of education reform are shifting beneath our feet. Can you feel it? But in this case, wearing flip-flop sandals isn’t going to improve the situation.
Largely because of the new administration in Washington DC, the National Education Association has to play a somewhat different game. Last week I highlighted how the group made a new full-throated embrace of the labor union mantel at their recent Representative Assembly meeting.
If you remember the climax correctly, retiring general counsel Bob Chanin took on “conservative right-wing bastards” like myself for giving the union grief. As Mike Antonucci points out, though, it’s a lot easier for NEA to hold forth conservative political opponents as the bogeyman than to confront the reality of strong criticism from the Left.
I’m talking about this recently-released 36-page report from the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights (PDF), which takes both major teachers unions (especially NEA) to task for undermining important and broadly-supported reforms to enhance accountability and teacher quality.
As the astute political observer Mickey Kaus notes:
How can we know when the tide of respectable opinion has decisively turned against the teachers’ unions? When a panel that includes Father Hesburgh, Birch Bayh,. Bill Bradley, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Roger Wilkins goes medieval on them….
No “conservative right-wing bastards” they. Sure, their rhetoric is a little bit softer than you might get from someone like yours truly, but the report reads like a shot across the bow to the national unions with the message: We’re going to proceed with reform whether you decide to join us or not. Engrossed with the constant barrages from the starboard side (for the non-mariners, read “from the Right”), it nevertheless will be hard for NEA to miss the port-side volley.
Assailed from both sides of the political spectrum — NEA could decide to embrace that martyrs’ badge, too. Only time will tell. But for now, they remain one of the premiere moneyed and powerful lobbying groups both in Washington DC and from sea to shining sea.
The Right-leaning education reform movement has its share of differences with its counterpart on the Left. But if enough synergy results from their growing alliance, a powerful and effective transformation of our existing education system may be closer at hand than I have thought.
Unless things change, it looks like NEA is going to stake its political future on serving as a nostalgic throwback to 20th-century industrial unionism and a massive obstacle to bipartisan reform.
If that’s the course they decide to take, so be it. The problems — and the solutions — remain. The political will to implement needed reforms and let local innovation flourish, and the competence and capability to successfully scale up those reforms? They’ll only keep growing.
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